April 8, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Mark 10:23-27.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is the enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through [the] eye of [a] needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
This idea of wealth as a sign of God’s favor has its roots in the Hebrew Bible. In the beginning of Job Satan said to God, “Is it for nothing that Job is God-fearing? Have you not surrounded him and his family and all that he has with your protection? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his livestock are spread over the land.” And the obverse in Isaiah, “Woe to the wicked man! All goes ill, with the work of his hands he will be repaid.” That’s why the disciples were astonished. Once again, Jesus is turning everything that have been taught to believe upside down.
It is not wealth per se that Jesus inveighs against; it is the attitudes and behaviors that wealth can lead to. What are those? I think Jesus is telling me here that wealth gets in the way of acknowledging that God is the source and fountain of everything. Only God can save me. What does Jesus tell me over and over that God wants? To be last, to take the lowest position, to share what I have, to be compassionate, to be humble, to be of service, to be dependent upon Him for everything, to return to Him what is His. This is direct opposition to what our culture teaches me and what it taught in Jesus’ time. I have been taught to strive to be first, to be on top, to be independent, to enjoy the fruits of my labors, to be proud of my success and accomplishments, to consume conspicuously, to hoard what is mine. We like to believe that we are a generous nation, but yet we only give away about 2% on average of what we earn individually and less than .2% of our national budget.
I think that puts into perspective the point that Jesus was making. We can and do pat ourselves on the back for the alms we give. We think we can earn salvation partly by our charity, yet we are hardly generous by any comparison. That’s the point. We have the attitude that what’s mine is mine. We exalt the rich and powerful and enact laws that protect and even enhance their wealth and power. We denigrate the poor. The Kansas legislature has passed a bill requiring all those who seek unemployment benefits or Medicaid assistance to pass a drug test. The belief is that too many applicants are freeloaders, frauds, and addicts. We cut the income taxes of the rich while shifting the burden to the lowest paid workers via the sales tax.
These are the attitudes and behaviors that Jesus is drawing to attention. It is the difference between putting myself at the center of the universe or God. It is the difference between keeping a tight grip on what I have and spreading my fingers so that it can all run through me. Tight or loose. The problem is that I forget I don’t really have the power to hold tight. Life is slipping away day by day. No amount of holding on is going to change that; only in God can I claim what is of value. If I have the attitude of indifference, of arrogance, of privilege, I am like a camel for which it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God. Salvation all depends on my receptivity to the kingdom of God and my welcome of His desire to use me as His instrument to bring it about.
Borg in Jesus writes, “Jesus clearly saw the desire for wealth as one of the primary distractions and preoccupations in life, as a consuming and blinding passion, despite the value assigned to it by conventional wisdom.” I recall calling upon a very wealthy man in his 70s to ask for a sizable gift for a charitable project. I had no reason to believe he was interested, but one of our campaign volunteers had an in so we thought it was worth a shot. He welcomed us into his office and listened politely but distractedly. He soon made it clear that his goal in life was to become a billionaire and giving away the sum we requested only kept him from achieving it that much longer. That’s not my goal in life, but I have other goals that also distract and preoccupy me like saving enough for retirement or budgeting enough for the next adventure I want to undertake. Sometimes the difference in our goals is only a matter of scale.
Sanford writes in The Kingdom Within, “The danger of wealth is not that it automatically excludes the one who possesses it from the kingdom, but that it greatly strengthens the outer mask and inflates the ego. By giving a person a feeling of power, influence, and regard among others, it makes it difficult for him or her to achieve the inner humility and admission of spiritual need….[I]t is not having wealth as such that destroys our relationship to the kingdom but what it can do to us if we are unconscious of the dangers.” If I am conscious of the dangers, then I must act accordingly. I must adhere to Jesus’ words in the certain belief that my salvation is only possible because of God’s generosity to me. He just asks me to be generous as well with what I have earned both in spirit and in deed.